Jeff Nichols isn’t exactly the most idiosyncratic filmmaker—either in style or subject matter—but his assured vision is one of a high enough caliber that a seven-year absence becomes lamentably noticed; turn that seven years into an even eight on account of studio refusal to fairly pay their striking actors, and the hunger for more Nichols becomes simply insatiable. After such a hiatus, one may be curious to see what sort of story Nichols would choose to end the drought, particularly since his previous hoorah involved an unpredictable one-two punch of science fiction and historical racial injustice, all within the span of three months.

“The Bikeriders,” being a loose adaptation of a report on a real-life biker gang, seems to answer the question of keeping Nichols on the road of true story reportage that he left eight years ago with “Loving.” Unlike his tender recounting of a landmark U.S. court case, however, “The Bikeriders” revisits the small-town, grungy atmosphere of the director’s earlier works, returning us to a time when the smell of tobacco was as common as that of rubber burning on the rural freeway. It’s a moment of clear nostalgia, but it’s one Nichols views with an affection that exists in spite of the inevitable crash course to which this road leads.

The Chicago Vandals are a biker gang formed by Johnny (Tom Hardy, in full grumble mode) as a simple hobby to join together men and women with a passion for Harleys, friendly fistfights, and more leather than an Italian shoemaker. The genesis of Johnny’s idea—a nighttime viewing (though Hardy’s concentration treats it more like a study) of the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One”—indicates a clear innocence to this premise, but that doesn’t mean the man will fall to the side for any punk with a knife.

Well, except, perhaps, for Benny (Austin Butler, trading in his Elvis drawl for a slightly gruffer Elvis drawl), his stoic protégé who lives by the credo of “Ride first, ask questions with your knuckles later.” Told from the perspective of Benny’s spunky wife Kathy (Jodie Comer, whose Midwestern accent gives every other goofy inflection a run for its money), “The Bikeriders” coalesces around these three perspectives to show the varying degrees of commitment they have to the paths that made them intersect, and the difficulties in accepting that they may not all be destined to continue on in the same direction.

Figuring out which of these characters is the true lead of “The Bikeriders” is enough to make one’s head spin faster than the wheels of a Harley (sorry; I only know one motorcycle brand), for each one exhibits varying degrees of outward investment while all commanding the screen with equally entrenched presences. Comer may be framing the film, but it’s Butler who sets it loose; it may be Butler who sets it loose, but it’s Hardy keeping it all grounded. Nichols’s understanding of his actors’ strengths could only be as apparent as it is thanks to his script’s earnest understanding of how important each of them is to the core of what this narrative is about: the things and people we choose to love, and how much we choose to love them.

The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Review
A still from “The Bikeriders” (2024)

To that end, there isn’t all that much to “The Bikeriders” that makes it an exceptionally unique experience—Nichols admittedly could have gone either more plot-driven or more deliberately unfocused in the riders’ lifestyle to fully illustrate the world these people are fighting for and against. The sincerity of the film, however, ensures that you don’t need to fully feel the wind in your own hair to believe that these people have felt it countless times and would kill just to be able to spend the rest of their lives doing so without all the drama that comes along with being the cool guy everyone wants to impress.

It also helps that Nichols’s penchant for scoping out the right faces manifests in the film’s supporting cast, a who’s who of mucky-looking character actors whose casting will invoke every sensation from “I’m glad they got him!” to “Of course they got him!” Everyone from Michael Shannon (because obviously, this is Nichols, after all) to Boyd Holbrook to Toby Wallace feels like the obvious choice, but only because they were so carefully hand-picked to inhabit roles that could easily have melted to the side if played by anyone else.

That Comer and Hardy put on such ridiculous accents and never once lead the film’s tone astray into parodic territory is a testament to the genuine love this project has for the world it displays. But love isn’t always healthy, and “The Bikeriders,” more than anything, ensures that the honesty of these eccentric figures only makes the truth of their volatility all the more apparent. Even Butler’s “tough as worn leather” act sets the stage for a final cathartic moment so simple in its telegraphing, but so satisfying in its adherence to that tone Nichols has orchestrated.

In 1969, “Easy Rider” helped signal the arrival of a new sort of mid-range filmmaking—one that made its bones on the promise of unadulterated truth in the expression of its convictions, even when those convictions lacked strong ideals to begin with. “The Bikeriders” comes at a moment when that sort of mid-range storytelling appears to have ridden off into the sunset for good, and Jeff Nichols doesn’t exactly send it off with a boisterous final bow befitting the “live fast, die young” ethos of any number of protagonists from this period. It might, however, linger on in its unhurried sense of truth to leave us staring into the empty road, just aching for another ride but wondering where it’ll all lead—or if we should even care at all.

Read More: All Jeff Nichols Movies Ranked

The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Cast of The Bikeriders (2024) Movie: Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, Mike Faist, Norman Reedus
The Bikeriders (2024) Movie Genre: Crime/Drama | Runtime: 1h 56m
Where to watch The Bikeriders

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